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Stand up to social licence 'radicals,' think tank boss says

Social licence "radicals" are delaying worthy natural resource projects and hurting Canada's social and economic fabric, Brian Lee Crowley told chambers of commerce in Dawson Creek and Fort St. John this week.
Brian Lee Crowley speaks at a Dawson Creek Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the George Dawson Inn on Wednesday.

 Social licence "radicals" are delaying worthy natural resource projects and hurting Canada's social and economic fabric, Brian Lee Crowley told chambers of commerce in Dawson Creek and Fort St. John this week.

Crowley, the managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute for Public Policy, delivered fiery broadsides on the state of the natural resource debate in the Peace Tuesday and Wednesday.

The Ottawa-based institute describes itself as an independent, non-partisan public policy think tank.

“The prosperity of all the regions at the natural resource frontier, including the Peace River region, is deeply affected by the social licence movement,” he said in an interview with the Alaska Highway News.

Social licence is defined as ongoing approval for projects from the communities in which they operate. The term is often used by opponents to denounce pipelines, dams, plants and other projects they object to. 

“Fort St. John and the whole Peace River region would like to benefit from Asia’s appetite for natural gas. In order to be able to do that, you’ve not only got to be able to get the natural gas out of the ground, but you’ve got to be able to put it in a pipe, take it to the coast, build LNG plants, liquefy it, put it in ships and take it to Asia,” he said.

“Every one of those steps that I’ve mentioned . . . is subject to claims of social licence advocates that there is no social licence to do this.”

Achieving that social licence, he says, is a long process that involves winning the support of local communities through consultation, involvement with local authorities, discussion about damage that might be done, and establishing what the community might like in exchange.

But social licence has gone too far in some cases, he told a crowd in Dawson Creek.

"Increasingly, social licence ought to be called by its real name: opponent's permission," he said. "The consequences of allowing social licence radicals to bully the rest of us have damaged Canada more than most people are prepared to admit."

Crowley added that that process isn't always done well, and in such cases it’s fair and justified for local communities to lash out against developments.

“We’re a free country, it’s perfectly OK to yell your head off and appear before the media and hold demonstrations and so on,” he said.

The problem he sees is that “a lot of the social licence people go way beyond that,” and interfere with the lawful activities of natural resource companies.

“They throw themselves under their equipment, they try and obstruct their work, I think that goes way beyond what’s legitimate or fair or allowed.”

Crowley believes politicians need to instill faith in institutions like the National Energy Board and environmental assessment agencies.

“What I hope to achieve is to put some backbone in the people who have benefitted for so long from the very sound institutions that Canada has created to make these difficult decisions about how to develop our resources,” he said.

“When they get challenged... they go, ‘Oh, gosh, somebody might be unhappy,’ but the livelihood, the opportunities, the employment of thousands is at stake here. The people who have an obligation to speak up in favour of the institutions we’ve created to approve these developments, I think they need to be prodded to do their job,” he said.

He added that reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people is integral for moving forward—best achieved by taking aboriginal rights seriously and discussing opportunities.

“My experience is that the vast majority of Aboriginal communities are very open to that discussion. There is no magic solution, you have to ask and then listen,” Crowley said.

—with files from Jonny Wakefield